It must have seemed like a terrific idea — collecting tales of the good old days from community members, filtering them through a theatrical lens, giving the resulting script to a group of actors, and adding a little music here and there.
And that’s exactly what Passage Theater’s artistic director June Ballinger, who also appears in the play, and playwright David Lee White have done with the help of 40 Trentonians, who were interviewed for the piece, plus director Adam Immerwahr and composer Vince di Mura. Lots of storytelling, and plenty of hard work. “Trenton Lights,” which is in its world premiere at Passage Theater, is a mish-mash of past, present, and bits of the future, but without much style and almost no tension.
The set design is simple: five “jungle gym” structures and five performers who take us through the two-hour tour. They begin, naturally enough, with “the good old days,” nine movie houses downtown along with major stores and just outside, a drive-in. Rather peaceful until the riots of 1968 (April 4 to be precise.) The time of Martin Luther King’s assassination was a troubled time for all cities; Trenton was no exception. Story after story points to that single event as “the turning point.”
The tales intertwine a little, but without apparent purpose. Act two brings the drug culture into the mix and talk about Guatemalans moving to town. Surprisingly, there is almost no mention of the companies (such as Roebling) leaving town.
June Ballinger has some fine moments, among them as a German Shepherd dog named Chang. The dog is the “partner” of a Trenton patrolman nicknamed Hoagie after his favorite lunch. The scene is one of the most touching of the evening, but, like so much else, peters out. The patrolman is promoted to detective, but then must leave the K-9 corps and, his partner.
Ross Beschler, Rodney Gilbert, and Devon Jordan play multiple roles, skipping from accent to accent with apparent ease. We are reminded of a similar theater piece almost 20 years ago — a play about the effect of Roebling Steel and its workers. The play was actually staged at the old steel plant. It told of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the pain and anguish involved.
June Ballinger has stated that “Trenton has always been a city of immigrants and it continues to be. People who came here and continue to come here because they believe in the American dream. We can learn a lot from their spirit.” It would be nice to think that they might find that spirit in this play.
“Trenton Lights,” through Sunday, June 6, Passage Theater at Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 Front Street, Trenton. $25 and $30. 609-392-0766.